Why America is ready for electric construction equipment

By Andy Brown and Neil Gerrard16 May 2023

Volvo CE’s EC230 22 tonne electric excavator concept

North America is ready for electric construction equipment, contrary to perceptions in some quarters that appetite for the machines lags that in Europe.

That’s according to Stephen Roy, president of Volvo Construction Equipment, Americas, speaking to International Construction.

Roy said he was seeing pockets of demand for electric machines across the USA, and that it wasn’t just their lower carbon emissions that was generating interest but the lower levels of noise and vibration.

When asked if electrically powered machines were likely to prove less popular in the North American market than in Europe, Roy said, “There are parts of the European market that are more progressive than other parts of the European market, so it’s not even the same in Europe and I think it’s the same here.

“We have states with high population density and when you go further towards the West Coast you get a lot more focus on environmental standards and more early adopters.”

Roy said he saw the trend to electrically powered machines continuing in the compact equipment market but also moving into the mid-range. Volvo is already piloting its first larger electrified excavator, the 22t EC230 in markets including Finland, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, and the machine is now making its way to North America.

“We have customers that are already ready to demo and get familiar with it and then we’ll start production for North America next year,” Roy said. “For the larger machines we see some alternative power solutions such as hydrogen fuel cells or hydrogen combustion engines”. The company already displayed a 30t prototype hydrogen fuel cell articulated hauler at ConExpo 2023 earlier this year.

North American customers see noise and vibration advantages in electric machines

Roy also highlighted the fact that certain customers are interested in the lower levels of noise and vibration that electric machines can offer, rather than just their sustainability credentials.

Stephen Roy Stephen Roy

“It’s not just about emissions. A lot of our customers are really excited about low noise and no vibrations, which can lead to improved operator conditions and also improved safety. We didn’t lead with that but we are finding that it’s just as important and creates new opportunities,” he said.

And he pointed to some unusual examples of where electric machines have proved a success in North America. “We’ve sold compact machines in areas that I would never have thought we’d sell them.

“We laugh about this but the Toronto Zoo needed machines to work at the same time that the buffalos were there but the noise from diesel machines scared them away. We also have an example of a school system that wanted to do some repairs as they are expanding a facility but the work was right next to a classroom and so again the electric machine was more suitable because it was lower noise.”

Roy said that the shift Volvo anticipated taking place in the market meant that competencies among its own workforce also had to change. “We’ve had to go out and search for people that have backgrounds in software and electrical engineering. It’s definitely a new ballgame but it’s a positive in that it’s bringing people into Volvo that maybe wouldn’t have considered it before. Electric and sustainable power brings a whole new generation of people who want to be part of this transformation.”

Machine control continuing to advance

Meanwhile, Roy, who is set to become president of Volvo-owned Mack Trucks next month, said that machine control technology in construction equipment “continues to get better and more sophisticated”.

He highlighted Volvo’s Dig Assist platform. “We now have a process where you can have an expert operator dig a hole for a certain application. So maybe you were putting in a culvert in a subdivision and you need to dig the hole in the same way. An expert can go out and dig it to the parameters that we need, save the file and transfer it to another excavator. And that excavator operator can now benefit from the best practice of the first, experienced operator.”

And he pointed to the growing capabilities of Volvo’s remote-controlled machines and its productivity tools.

The OEM recently handed over a remote-controlled EC250 excavator to a customer in South Dakota who works installing pipes in a water sewer.

He also noted that Volvo has the capability to retrofit non-Volvo machines and link them into Volvo’s Connected Maps feature, which allows a visual overview in real time of the position and movement of every machine, vehicle and visitor to site.

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